Friday, December 12, 2014


"Every aspect of our lives is, in a sense, 
a vote for the kind of world we want to live in." 
Frances Lappe Moore

For Laura M.

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook that she is struggling with and looking for help in how to balance passion and doubt, privilege and responsibility with regards to how to be a good activist, a good human, a person who is doing that mythical, unreachable quantity of “enough” to make the world a more just place.

Especially in the face of all that seems freshly wrong with the world—climate change and human rights violations being chief concerns—there is a constant worry and pressure to continually rise ever higher, deeper, wider to all such challenges.

And, if we succumb to the doubts, the crippling overwhelming grief that we are not and never will be enough—just one lone beating heart and set of bones against all the troubles and sorrows and crimes we would stop with our bodies and breath if only we could…well, we’ll lose it all for certain.

I once had the incredible opportunity to sit down to breakfast, one on one, with the environmental-feminism-faith-everything writer Terry Tempest Williams. We talked about my nascent writing, about what I want to do. A cavalry of words came out—that I want to write about the stench of an outhouse in a Kenyan slum, about the tremor of a man’s handshake after Hurricane Katrina, about the incandescent rays of sunset on the mountain flowers, about all the other ways I long to write people in love with the world I love so that they’ll join in its salvage. And then there were no more good words and I choked out amongst hot tears that “I just worry it will never be enough.”

Terry Tempest Williams reached across the table, grabbed my elbow, and with a few tears of her own, reassured me that: “it will never be enough. But you have to do it, anyway.”

It is the best advice I’ve ever had.

What “enough” looks like for each person, trying to be good and better in this ravaged and beautiful world, is varied. There is no right answer, there is no end point when we can safely wash out hands and say that it is enough.

When I was in Kenya, in its slums and suburbs and villages and goat-dung huts, I was uncomfortably aware of the color of my skin for the first time. (I’m from New Hampshire; it’s a very white state.) Knowing the horrors that people who look like me had visited upon the people who looked like the Maasai-Samburu women or the beggar boys in the Nairobi streets, I wanted to rip my own pale skin off and be invisible. I did not want the prickling awareness of my privilege, because I did not know how to use that as a tool against the unjust system that creates and exacerbates these ridiculous gulfs between humans.

I am still not sure, but I’m done wringing my hands and wondering about how to tear off my skin and live without my pigmented privilege. I cannot, so wishing and dithering is a waste of precious time and energy. What I can do is keep that fire of awareness in my heart, treat all people with kindness and respect and equality, and speak up for the rights and privileges of other humans. 

This works until I find myself looking at a black student at school and wondering how the hell we live in a world were someone who looks like him could be easily shot in some parts of the country, while his white classmate would be allowed to buy Skittles unquestioned. Or why the people who look like me could mostly afford to get out of Hurricane Katrina’s path, and the black people drowned in their attics. 

No matter how well and equally and kindly I treat anyone, the world is a lot scarier than I can fix alone.

We are none of us in any of these fights alone. Dark times will find us all, but there are more and growing numbers of people who want the world kindly different than it is. We have each other, seen and unseen. We are at sea amid a movement of empathy, and part of that is the ability to receive, as well as to give. Let yourself recognize and take in the efforts and energies of others. None of us are the messiah.

My friend also asked for companionship, for help, in balancing the different sorts of activism she is compelled to be part of. How do we split and divide to the passions of our hearts—hearts that leap from our chests at suggestion of violence and injustice—while remaining united and committed to each cause? If I am a passionate Environmentalist, how can I also have the energy and time to be a good Feminist, a voice for Civil Rights, and all the rest of the unpleasant panoply of injustices that need strong voices and bodies?

Add in that one still needs to meet at least a modicum of Maslow’s Hierarchy, and there are not enough hours in the day, months in a year, years in a life to be “enough.”

As an Environmentalist, I think constantly about reducing my consumption, paring down my possessions so that I live with only what I truly need and what brings me joy. And I do this for my own freedom and peace of mind in unhooking from the cultural drip of consumptive crimes committed out of feeling insufficient, rather than trying to match some ideal of the carbon foot-printless Environmental activist. I’ve known smugly posturing minimalists and activists who put the political before the personal, and there was a whiff of selfish disingenuousness about the whole show. I know people with the clod-hopping carbon footprints of Paul Bunyan who have among the kindest and most ethical ways of being in the world that I am fortunate enough to witness. And I know many people in between, merrily striving forward. One of my two brilliant sisters is fond of saying she likes having her loved possessions because: “it means I plan on sticking around this world for a while.” With Environmentalism, I believe in finding the personal enough that comes from honesty, and manifests itself humbly. Enough is saying no to a pipeline, to a cavalcade of iDevices, enough is planting a garden, enough is getting arrested, enough is not getting arrested, enough is refusing to support public radio stations that accept National Gas Money, enough is shopping at thrift stores, enough is installing solar panels, enough is writing this. Enough is never enough, but it is always a personally necessary act that makes your soul clean and happy.

With Feminism, I stick pretty close to the same idea for fighting racism—treat everybody with the same dignity and respect, and have the self-respect as a lady, to call the patriarchy out when it rears its ugly head. Which is quite frequently. For example, yesterday, a co-worker was talking about how uncomfortable her breast pump is—as this is a very female-gender specific field of science research and product design, I suspect it hasn’t received the merit, attention, or funding it deserves. Peel back a little more, and the repercussions of painful breast pumps are that it is harder for women to nurse at work, so it is harder for mothers to return to work while nursing, so it is harder for women to stay in their jobs—accruing financial resources and workplace experience and intellectual satisfaction—and have kids, which so far, is both cheaper and easier for women to do than men or test tubes. This biological v. individual balance seems like it’s hard enough to reconcile, without a paucity of science on the simple matter of a breast pump.

Which project, really, has more benefit for human—not just man—kind?

In my head and heart, all these sorts of injustice in the world that need to be combated by passionate activists of all stripes are braided together. The root of it all—environmental degradation, violent racism, classism/economic abuse, and misogyny—is a combination of unequal power dynamics and limited global resources. Whoever controls the resources has the power.

Going off the map by respecting everyone equally rather than kowtowing to the powerful, by minimizing your own resources to lessen anyone’s power over you and your reliance on an unjust economy, by speaking about the (sometimes unconscious) abuses by the powerful, by using personal passion and talents as tools for revolution and happiness, by recognizing the efforts of others instead of constantly striving to be the lone superhero, is as good a collection of ways to combat doubt and indecision and apathy in these Good Fights as I know. I hope and trust they’re enough, because it’s what I have to do anyway. And there is no other way I can or would rather be.

(image from

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